Although the LEARNS Act will increase public school teachers' minimum salaries to at least $50,000 and give $2,000 raises, districts must decide for themselves to what degree they can reward educators' experience and education, state officials and lawmakers said.
However, education leaders say they won't know the full extent to which they can afford to compensate educators and other critical staff until the Legislature and governor approve a bill indicating how much funding will be provided by the state.
As a result, many district officials who are preparing staff contracts for the 2023-2024 school year say they are worried about employee retention despite their enthusiasm for broad portions of the education overhaul.
The LEARNS Act is a 145-page new law championed by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders that includes raising beginning teacher salaries from $36,000 to $50,000, offering other teacher pay incentives, eliminating teacher and support staff job protections, creating a voucher system that would give families access to public funding for home school costs or private school tuition, creating a dual diploma system to prepare students for the workforce, funding for 120 reading coaches, and providing $500 grants for tutors for academically struggling kindergarten-through-third graders.
State Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, and Rep. Keith Brooks, R-Little Rock, sponsored the bill, which was filed Feb. 20. The bill made its way through the Legislature over the course of three weeks. Sanders signed the LEARNS Act into law March 8, exactly one month after she unveiled the package.
FUNDING FOR LEARNS
The state is paying for the entirety of the $50,000 minimum salary increases and $2,000 raises for teachers, according to state Education Secretary Jacob Oliva.
The increase will affect traditional public schools and public charter schools.
"Every teacher is going to be funded," he said.
The state Department of Education projects that the LEARNS Act will cost $297 million in its first year, including $150 million in general revenue, about $103 million in increased revenues from the educational adequacy fund, and about $44 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds.
"It's not coming from any dollars that have been allocated to school districts," Oliva said.
In year two, the cost will increase to $343.3 million, including $250 million in new funding. Pay for teachers will cost the state $180 million. The law's voucher program will cost $46.7 million in the first year and $97.5 million in the second year, according to the Department of Education.
In the third year, the program will cost the state an estimated $175 million, said Robert Brech, deputy director of budget at the Department of Finance and Administration.
The Education Department has distributed a five-page draft document estimating the funding each district would be provided for the salary increases and raises for the next school year.
The agency used snapshots of school data known as "cycles" to make those estimates, according to Oliva.
In addition to money provided through LEARNS, however, districts will continue to receive per-pupil funding through the adequacy process.
That adequacy process determines how much the state will spend on public schools for the next two years. The per-student foundation funding is the largest part of state funding for public education. Schools also receive supplemental state and federal funds for education.
The Bryant School District, for instance, generally gets about 55% of its funding from the state, while the other 45% comes from local taxes, according to Superintendent Karen Walters.
"LEARNS is a bill to support teaching and learning and comes funded from a separate category. Districts have those dollars," Oliva said. "They're keeping those dollars. They get to decide the value they want to put on those dollars and where they go."
SALARY SCHEDULE COMPRESSION
Despite the promise of full funding for raises required by LEARNS, some education leaders have said their districts will struggle to fairly compensate teachers for their experience or education levels as a result of the law. As a result, they worry educators will leave their districts for others that can afford more broader pay scales.
That arrangement, in which teachers with greater experience or a higher level of education receive additional pay, is known as a "salary schedule." Each level of additional pay is called a "step."
LEARNS repeals the state's salary schedule for teachers, instead requiring each school district to come up with its own pay structure for educators. Davis said districts will have the freedom to develop a salary schedule that meets their needs.
"They have the flexibility to keep it however they would like," she said. "That's up to them to have those conversations and decide what they want to do."
However, some superintendents have pointed out that if they wish to maintain a scale similar to the one they used before LEARNS, the cost to their districts could be in the millions. First-year teachers in a district where the minimum salary is $36,000 would see a $14,000, or 38%, increase in pay to $50,000. A teacher with several years of experience and a $48,000 salary would see only a $2,000, or 4%, increase funded by LEARNS. Any additional compensation for experience or education would have to be paid through other means.
Many superintendents say it is only fair to veteran teachers for districts to maintain a strong salary scale under LEARNS. However, some say smaller districts will struggle to afford that.
Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators Executive Director Mike Hernandez acknowledged that changes to salary schedules would likely be necessary for at least some districts, and that many may not be able to maintain a salary schedule similar to what they had prior to the law.
"It's likely there won't be enough to do that," he said. "So they're going to have to make some decisions about how they alter their compensation packages in the future."
Walters said keeping the Bryant School District's salary schedule at a scale similar to what it was before LEARNS was signed would cost her district $7 million.
While the superintendent said she didn't think the intention of LEARNS was ever for districts to keep their salary schedules the way they were prior to the law, she said, "I am concerned about what this is going to look like for the teachers that have taught for 15 years or more. The way we're being funded it looks to me like a lot of people are going to be frozen."
As the district has to get contracts out soon, the superintendent said it must move forward with what is required in the law and then work with its personnel policies committee to craft their salary schedule.
Walters said of her experienced teachers, "While I know that they're happy to get a $2,000 raise next year, for some of them I think that will be the only raise they get for some time."
Several educators in the Bryant School District also began pursuing master's degrees with the belief that they would receive a $4,000 raise upon completion. Walters said that, as a result of LEARNS, she can no longer guarantee that raise.
"I've heard from a few of them that they wish they had not taken out their student loans since that's not going to be a part of the LEARNS bill," she said.
Superintendent Jeremy Owoh of the Jacksonville North Pulaski School District expressed similar concerns.
It would cost his district an additional $2.3 million to keep sustainable increments from the $50,000 minimum through the district's current 28 steps and through lane changes for advanced degrees.
"If you're a small district with a low tax base, how do you really sustain that and give increments year after year for teachers who stay with you?" he asked. Owoh said he believed smaller or rural districts will see an increase in teachers leaving their districts for others with higher salary scales. "I really feel like it's going to pit neighboring districts against each other and we're going to see a lot of mobility among teachers and licensed staff members," he said.
However, Owoh said his district aims to ensure it continues to offer competitive salaries. "We're committed to making sure that we invest financially and also professionally in our staff, because we know they directly impact our young people," he said.
The necessity for districts to reevaluate their salary schedules may encourage some to consider alternatives to traditional models, such as one that incentivizes work performance, Hernandez said.
"[LEARNS] kind of gives some flexibility to the districts where they don't necessarily have to reward years of experience or degrees," he said.
Some districts in states such as Maryland and Texas have leaned into providing greater incentives for work and performance. Even personnel managers in Arkansas have studied different compensation measures over the years, Hernandez said.
Still, he acknowledged it can be difficult for districts to come around to the idea of adopting a different pay structure, especially because they have been required to follow a schedule that has traditionally required steps and lanes.
"It hasn't allowed for that creativity," he said. "And of course when I say that, it doesn't mean creativity is always good. It just, oftentimes when you change from that it is scary. I think that needs to be acknowledged that it's different but it doesn't mean that it's bad."
The LEARNS Act also creates a "merit teacher incentive fund program." Under the program, teachers who meet certain requirements are eligible for "annual bonuses of no more than $10,000."
The funding for those bonuses will not come from school districts' pockets, and a work group will be formed to design the program application determining qualifications for merit pay, according to Oliva.
NOT COVERED BY LEARNS FUNDING
Raises provided by LEARNS are intended only for schools' certified staff paid for through state funds, such as teachers. Any raises districts plan to give for classified staff, such as bus drivers, custodians and cafeteria workers, or employees in federally funded positions must be funded through other sources.
Wages for classified staff are handled through the adequacy funding process that is still working its way through the Legislature, said Brooks, the representative from Little Rock.
An adequacy funding bill that would provide a $2-an-hour increase for classified staff was advanced by the House Education Committee on Thursday. Payment for certified staff members working longer than 190 days is also not covered under LEARNS, according to Walters. The superintendent said staff with such extended contracts include principals, assistant principals, and secondary counselors at high schools.
Because of the number of certified staff working over 190 days, the district is short about $500,000 to provide the salary increases required by LEARNS, she said
Hernandez said districts may have to decide whether to stop those contracts beyond 190 days or pay them a daily rate.
"They are having to figure out what they're going to do moving forward, if they're going to keep those rates that way, or they maybe make an adjustment to their salary schedule," he said.
FOUNDATION FUNDING UNFINALIZED
Lawmakers are working to finalize the next round of adequacy funding for the 2023-2024 and 2024-2025 academic years. Until that is completed, district officials remain uncertain how much money they will get from the state to fund salary schedule changes, pay for classified and extended contract staff and for other expenses.
Lawmakers hope to finalize funding before April 7, when they plan to go home or on recess.
Walters said that, by now, she has usually provided the Bryant School Board with a drafted budget for the next school year. However, she doesn't want to plan out a possible budget, only to start over once she knows how much foundation funding the district will receive.
"I have not even started on a budget for next year because I don't have any idea what my revenue is going to be," she said.
A funding bill sponsored by Rep. Brian Evans of Cabot and Sen. Jane English of North Little Rock, both Republicans, was filed March 23.
House Bill 1688 calls for an increase in the per-student foundation funding by $205 to $7,618 for the 2023-2024 school year. For the 2024-2025 school year, the legislation calls for the per-student funding to increase to $7,771. The per-pupil funding for the 2022-2023 school year is $7,413.
The per-pupil funding in the bill is less than the $8,129 the House and the $8,150 Senate committees recommended in November for the total foundation funding rate for the 2023-2024 school year.
He also said the per-student funding was less than what lawmakers initially proposed because of a lack of need to increase insurance for full-time staff. The bill calls for the school districts to pay a health insurance contribution rate set by the General Assembly.
A bill filed March 24 aims to overhaul the way Arkansas funds public schools, however.
House Bill 1689 sponsored by Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, would create a new formula that more heavily weighs factors such as district size, population density and poverty. The proposed formula would create a fairer system that funnels more resources to schools that need it, he said. The bill would not take effect until the 2025-2026 school year.
As a former superintendent, Oliva said he recognizes this is the time that districts are planning out programs and priorities for the next school year.
"They just want to know where they are and how to plan some of it moving forward," he said.
However, districts would be concerned about their foundation funding regardless of the education overhaul, according to Oliva.
"Until I see what the state settles on the foundation funding, until I see where we settle with federal entitlement grants, until we see all the legislative initiatives land, I would have that concern every year," Oliva said. The agency leader described it as a "normal process."
Information for this article was contributed by Neal Earley and Cynthia Howell of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.